Stephon Marbury (cont.)
Wang, the 61-year-old self-made steel magnate, says that when it comes to basketball, he is not "a businessman." This is an owner who has shelled out more than 100 million yuan ($15 million) over the past decade on his team, "only for the love of basketball;" who once chose watching Michael Jordan over going to a business meeting; who has been known for setting his team's lineups, telling his coach when to call a timeout and what to do during practice. "The Chinese Mark Cuban," is how one Chinese basketball commentator described Wang.
Wang knows that for the miracle of his team reaching the playoffs to happen, his only hope is to keep Marbury happy. And to do that he has to control himself, not the team. Wang has made it clear that "Marbury is our leader and he calls how we play." "He likes Marbury a lot, but he won't change the way he dealt with the rest of the team," a source close to Shanxi said. "After Marbury came in, he asked players for more shooting practice. He went, 'With Marbury the passes will always come, and all you have to do is make the shots.'"
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In his first game in China, a jet-lagged Marbury had 15 points, four rebounds, eight assists and four steals in 28 minutes, but missed all six of his three-point shots. The Brave Dragons lost by one point. (Wells, in his debut for Shanxi, scored 48 points and tallied 11 rebounds in leading the team to a 107-106 win.) In his third game, Marbury put up 35 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, but the team lost its fourth in a row.
"A tough loss," Marbury said afterward, "but we're getting better. My energy is getting better." He understands that for his brand to take off in China, he has to play well and win games. Also, like Wang, he has to control himself and not let his mercurial ways get the better of him.
In CBA, things can turn around quickly. Just ask Yao Ming: Shanghai Sharks, his hometown team for which he played before joining the NBA's Houston Rockets -- and which he bought last year -- went from the league's worst last season to a championship contender this year. One good wai yuan (foreign player) can make all the difference.
In his fourth game in China, Marbury tallied 34 points and seven assists, leading Shanxi to an emphatic win over Zhejiang, a mid-table team. Next, in a win over Beijing, he put on a show with 30 points, nine rebounds and 15 assists before a national television audience. Marbury has averaged 33 points, eight rebounds and 10.3 assists in his last three games.
"He has made all the difference," said Wu Qinglong, Shanxi's coach. "Because of him, we are now more of a team." Given Marbury's history with coaches, Wu has every reason to be worried. But instead Wu has been taking notes when Marbury works with the team, such as showing young players how to defend the high pick-and-roll.
But might Wu's authority as coach ultimately be undermined by Marbury's presence? "No," Wang said matter-of-factly. "Wu is open-minded and eager to learn." Wu added: "I've never seen a foreign player with such patience and charisma." His teammates agree, as do the fans.
"He certainly has enjoyed his popularity here," one Chinese reporter observed. "The Chinese fans don't mind his troublesome past."
In just three weeks in China, Marbury has picked up nearly 35,000 Twitter followers. The morning after beating Beijing, he had an autograph-signing session in Taiyuan, attracting fans from age 6 to 80. Countless pictures were taken; 500 pairs of Starbury were signed and sold in less than two hours. "It is a bit of a test on the market and it's very successful," one source close to Marbury's business team said. "They're looking for partners in China to brand and distribute [Starbury]. But so far nothing's been ironed out."
It is worth noting, however, that Marbury's online store has sold fewer than 20 pairs of sneakers so far. An employee for the store was quoted in a Chinese newspaper report as saying that the reason for the low sales is "limited style choices."
Starbury has entered a market saturated with not just Nike, Adidas and Puma on the high end, but a long list of local brands such as Li-Ning, Anta and Peak, all supplying a wide range of affordable sportswear. In fact, before Marbury came to China, his business manager had discussions with Peak about incorporating Starbury into their product lineup. Peak, endorsed by Ron Artest, Jason Kidd and Shane Battier, held back on the idea because it couldn't be assured how long Marbury would be playing in China or how deeply he is committed to growing his brand there.
"I may come again next season," Marbury said, "depending on how this season goes." His compatriot Smush Parker, another Brooklyn native, joined Guangdong Hongyuan midway through last season and was instrumental in the team's winning back-to-back championships. A year later he is still a starter for Guangdong, which beat Shanxi 113-104 in Marbury's second game.
Perhaps only after Marbury has led his team to the playoffs in March and returned next season to produce a similar result, can he talk seriously about achieving success in the world's most promising -- and equally challenging -- business territory. Winning a few games is one thing; building a championship contender, much less an empire, is another. Marbury, whose back is against the Great Wall, knows that all too well.
Jiang Yi is editor-at-large of Sports Illustrated China.